But this is a city where no one seems to have the clout to make
things happen anymore, and where even the most junior members of
Congress have the ability to stop those who try.
Which is why it is no longer John Dingell’s Washington. And why he
has decided to hang it up when his term ends.
Dingell is still up to the job, he insisted, though he is a frail
87 years old. The problem, he said, is Congress itself.
“I find serving in the House to be obnoxious,” he
told the Detroit News
, which on Monday broke the story that Dingell plans to retire.
“It’s become very hard because of the acrimony and bitterness, both
in Congress and in the streets.”
“Is it fixable?” Dingell said in an interview with The Washington
Post. “There’s only one person that can fix it, and there’s only one
group of people that can answer that question, and that’s the
voters. If they want it to change, it will change.”
Having served 59 years —
longer than anyone in the history of Congress
— Dingell (D-Mich.) left his imprint on legislation that ranged from
the establishment of Medicare to environmental laws to civil rights
In the 1980s, the prospect of a subpoena from his headline-
grabbing investigative subcommittee was so terrifying that some
Washington law firms built a specialty practice that the newspaper
American Lawyer dubbed “the Dingell bar.”
Dingell’s is the latest in a series of high-profile departures
from the House, marking both a generational shift and the vanishing
of a breed of master lawmakers.
Among those who have also recently announced that they will not seek
his longtime adversary Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.)
, who in 2008 unseated him as chairman of the Energy and Commerce
Dingell was shoved aside because a new wave of liberal, activist
lawmakers, elected in 2006 and 2008, viewed him as an obstacle
to climate-change legislation and other measures that he opposed on
behalf of his constituents — and the industries that employ them —
in the industrial Midwest.
He also found himself increasingly out of step with many of his
Democratic colleagues in other areas, including gun control.
Dingell was once a National Rifle Association board member.
Yet on other issues, Dingell is an ardently old-style liberal. His
most cherished cause was expanding health care coverage, which came
to fruition with the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
For decades, at the start of each congressional session,
Dingell would introduce national health insurance legislation nearly
identical to a bill that his father and congressional predecessor,
Rep. John Dingell Sr., first offered in 1943.
The younger Dingell won election to the House after his father’s
death in 1955; between them, father and son had represented their
Michigan congressional district since the start of the New Deal in
Last June, Dingell surpassed the record of the late Sen. Robert C.
Byrd (D-W.Va.) to become the longest-serving member of Congress
And Dingell’s retirement may not mean the end of the family
dynasty. His wife, Deborah, an executive and a powerful force in
Democratic circles, is considering a run for the seat; she would be
a favorite if she does. The district leans heavily Democratic;
President Obama beat GOP nominee Mitt Romney there by 34 points in
Asked about his wife’s plans, Dingell said: “She is the one who is
going to make that decision. She has not told me what she’s planning
on doing. She is making up her mind at this time. . . . To be very
truthful with you, I think she’d be one hell of a good
congresswoman. She’s able and decent and smart and tough as hell.”
Deborah Dingell did not respond to a request for comment.
John Dingell Jr. came to Congress in an era when committee
chairmen ranked as the House’s real powers, with clout that exceeded
even that of the speaker.
He became known as Big John and “The Truck” — nicknames that
described both his 6-foot-3 stature and the force with which he was
willing to exert his will.
When Dingell took the helm of the Energy and Commerce
Committee in 1981, he embarked on a campaign of empire building,
extending its turf, often over the protests of other lawmakers. Its
jurisdiction became the broadest of any panel in Congress, including
not only energy but also health, the environment, telecommunications
and consumer protection.
The National Journal once described the committee’s purview as
“anything that moves, burns or is sold.”
Dingell also kept his committee members in line. When Rep.
James Florio (D-N.J.), later New Jersey’s governor, persisted in
battling for tougher Superfund waste-cleanup laws in the
subcommittee that he chaired, Dingell simply abolished the
Starting in the 1990s, however, power among House Democrats began
shifting toward those who represented the liberal coasts — among
them, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.).
Her rivalry with Dingell was such that when redistricting forced
him into a primary race against another incumbent Democrat in 2002,
Pelosi backed his opponent, Rep. Lynn Rivers. Dingell, however, won
But the committee system from which he derived his power was
fraying, as clout and leverage moved into the suites of the House
speaker and the Senate majority leader. And even they now lack the
ability to control unruly junior members, whose allegiance is bound
more to ideology than party discipline.
Dingell is the Democrats’ third former House committee chairman to
announce his retirement plans in the first two months of the year,
(D-Calif.). Another, Rep.
Collin C. Peterson
(D-Minn.), is still considering whether to run again.
On the Senate side of the Capitol, five committee chairmen decided
not to run for reelection in November, taking with them a combined
150 years of senatorial experience.
Each has his reasons for retiring, and almost all are in
their 70s or 80s, but their collective departures suggest that the
committee system has eroded to near-irrelevance. Almost no major
legislation follows the how-a-bill-becomes-a-law path that students
used to learn in their social studies classes.
And, as Dingell pointed out in a speech in Michigan on Monday, not
much is being accomplished.
“This Congress has been a great disappointment to everyone —
members, media, citizens and our country,” he said. “Little has been
done in this Congress, with 57 bills passed into law. That is not
Heinz packaged varieties, it is the laws passed by the Congress.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.